The Key West Mystique

Key West Island News


Key West Island News connects Key West residents and friends of the island, fosters our One Human Family culture and advances understanding of shared goals for our island community

Masked outlaw cat

Just how real is Key West’s “outlaw culture”?

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.


Who wouldn’t click on a headline that says “This spot in the Keys is one of the hottest travel destinations in the U.S.” I mean, what else could it be but Key West?

No surprise to anyone who lives on the island these days. We hear the planes. We twiddle our thumbs in traffic and pray we don’t side swipe a scooter, golf cart, bicycle, etc., coming the wrong way. We swear behind our masks (see, they really are good for something). And, we try our best to separate the “good” tourists from the growing number of, well, unpleasant ones.

I clicked on the story from the Miami Herald. Key West is number five on the 2021 TripAdvisor “most popular destinations” list. We’re right behind, New York City, Maui, Las Vegas and New Orleans.

TripAdvisor says nice things about our island even if they don’t know that the Eco-Discovery Center hasn’t reopened since its 2020 Covid-19 closing.Does time ever pass in the Florida Keys? Everyone and everything in Key West seems to go at its own pace, right down to the ice melting slooooowly in your margarita glass. Of course, it’s not all limes and leisure – Key West is known as the “Winter White House” because of its appeal to visiting U.S. presidents, and the island has been home to literary greats like Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams. The diving here is phenomenal, as is the kid-friendly Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center.”

That’s standard, forgettable marketing fluff and it’s nice to be a popular destination since tourism pays the bills around here.

It was this paragraph in the Miami Herald story that made me go “huh”?

“Key West’s popularity makes sense. More than half of the respondents to a recent Tripadvisor survey reported they were likely to take an outdoor or nature-focused trip after the pandemic. Key West is the sort of lawless island where over-served tourists are charged with stealing floating tiki bars, but such outlaw behavior does not damage the island’s potent allure.”

Go back and read that again. Lawless island. Outlaw behavior. Is that how our visitors see us these days? Well, of course, it is. What locals know as our laid back, One Human Family island culture has been re-branded as a lawless island where the best thing to do starts and ends with being over-served. Our potent allure, so to speak, has become an all-you-can-drink, free-for-all escape from the rules and norms of the mainland.

One need look no further than Duval’s defiant, over-bearing, mask-less tourists, jammed shoulder-to-elbow as though Key West were the only place on the planet without Covid-19. They come here believing, not in the Key West Mystique, but in having a drunken good time in a place with no laws.

Somehow this sub-culture of our visitors interprets our One Human Family culture as a Las Vegas-style brand of “what happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas.” This, my friends, is not a good thing; no matter how desperately we must cling to tourism as our reigning revenue stream.

There really is such a thing as the Key West Mystique. The island has always sent a siren’s song to those wanting a place and a people far from the American mainstream. We’ve had more than our fair share of pirates and rascals and legendary tall tales. They flourished within the larger context of a working island city.

We are a city with people who work for a living, take their kids to school, argue politics, complain about taxes, Covid-19 vaccines or the lack of them and not enough parking. We scramble to pay the rent and work two jobs and serve on countless volunteer boards.

We are not now, nor have we ever been a “lawless island.” That we are perceived as such by a significant cadre of misinformed tourists not only will damage, but already has damaged our “potent allure.”

I love this place. Lord willing, I’ll end up dust in a shell in our space in the Key West Cemetery. But those “ugly American” outlaw tourists are a blight on our island home.


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